It’s a turkey vulture, it’s a plane, no … it’s a California condor!

I really want to see a California condor.

When I learned that there were 19 released—and commonly sighted—California condors in the Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park in Baja California, where I would be traveling over break, I decided to brush up on my bird identification skills to avoid excitedly mistaking every turkey vulture for a condor. According to a recent article in KPBS in San Diego, four California condors were just transferred from the San Diego Zoo’s captive breeding program to the park for acclimation and quarantine; they are scheduled to be released in April. In the end, I had no confirmed sightings of a California condor, but I did learn more about them and the near ubiquitous turkey vulture.

The first give away of a California condor is its sheer size. Weighing in at a whopping 25+ lbs, the California condor commands the skies with a wing span of nearly 10 feet from tip to tip, the largest of any bird in North America. (Note that in terms of mass and/or body length, the condor is surpassed by the Trumpeter Swan, American White Pelican, and Whooping Crane). Condors have even been mistaken for small planes! Turkey vultures have only one fifth the mass and half the wing span of California condors, but size is not always easy to determine high up in the sky. Other features that discern between these two species are flight patterns and ventral profile. The California condor has a flat flight position and is very stable, compared to the slight “V” and more wobbly flight of a turkey vulture. The ventral color patterns seen from below are shown in this picture from the National Park Service. California condors also have colored identification tags that help scientists identify individual birds.

Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) and California condors (Gymnogyps californianus) are both members of the family Cathartidae, i.e., New World vultures. New World vultures belong to the order Incertae sedis, Latin for “we still don’t know where to put these guys.” New World vultures went from being classified under Falconiformes (raptors), to Ciconiiformes (storks, herons, and the like), back to Falconiformes, and are now classified in their own order, Cathartiformes, by the South American Classification Committee.

Turkey vultures stop for a snack

The similarities between the New World vultures that we are familiar with and Old World vultures are not due to direct relatedness, but to convergent evolution, i.e. morphological similarity swayed by similar environmental pressures. The most striking feature of these birds—a pale-to-red naked head—evolved in both families as a necessity for hygiene. These scavenging birds spend their meals neck-deep in dead animal, and a head covered in feathers would quickly become plastered in rotting meat and festering bacteria (“Excuse me, sir, you have some carrion stuck in your beard”). Instead, a naked head is kept sanitized by dehydration and ultraviolet light at high altitudes. Interestingly, just as a person can express emotional state through blushing, so too can a California condor communicate through a flushing neck. And just for the record, a vulture is NOT a buzzard, which technically refers to the Buteo genus, i.e. hawks.

Interested in trying to spot a California condor in the wild? Well you’re in luck; there are three release sites in California, two of which are relatively close to Berkeley: Big Sur, Pinnacles National Monument, and Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge. According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, there are 369 condors as of March 2011: 178 in captivity, 20 in Baja, 97 in California, and 74 in Arizona.


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  1. Kohar

    On 1/20/2013 I was walking my dog (about no biger than 3 pouds) 2 ca.voltures circled him than they settled on a tree. I saw 2 others also on same tree. I was surprised as I had not seen them here before. I wonder if they were after my dog. Do they hunt live animals?.maybe the cold weather brought them here. I took some photos with my cell. Looks too far to make them up. I live in almaden valley in San Jose ca.

  2. Dom

    No California Condors are specifically scavengers. The do not hunt. They don’t have to. They have a special pouch in their necks where they can store food so when they find a caracas they eat as much as they can and store some in their pouch. This means they can go quite a while with out finding food.

  3. Ron H

    I was hiking in the Pinnacles National Park last week and saw two condors on a peak off the High Peaks Trail. One condor with a visible tag was #44.

  4. K. Wedll

    I saw a huge bird today eating a dead animal out in a field near Blue Lake CA. At first I thought it was a vulture, but really, it was huge. Are there any condors in this area of Humboldt County?

    • Anonymous


  5. Dave

    Live in Monterey and have looked up and admired dozens or hundreds of turkey vultures over the years (even spooked a few chilling out at remote sand dunes), and today saw what I first took to be one but looked/flew different. It seemed to have a lighter underside (was quite high up so not sure) and a different wing position. Couldn’t quite tell the size as it was again high up, but much bigger than a falcon or eagle, so AFAIK only two options.

    Then I went online to research California Condors and found nice articles like this. And I’m POSITIVE that that’s what I saw, and also POSITIVE that even if it wasn’t I’ll claim to others it was in the future, and possibly also incorporate identifying markers from what I just now read into my own memory, which will be rewritten because I want to impress others and myself. I’m special. That Michael Jordan and Stuart Smalley (now US Senator Al Franken) skit was so funny.

    P.S. “Excuse me, sir, you have some carrion stuck in your beard” is mirthful.

  6. Anonymous

    Why isn’t there any information for the differences for my California condors and turkey vultures.